Bears

Moon: O-line struggled, defense prevailed

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Moon: O-line struggled, defense prevailed

Players typically declare that they are not competing with their opposite numbers. Jay Cutler says he is not measuring himself against Aaron Rodgers. Julius Peppers doesnt watch film of Jared Allen. Defensive team goals are based on points allowed, yards allowed, takeaways and such, not whether their defense had better stats than the other guys.

But coach Lovie Smith said after the game that the Bears defense outplayed the other teams. Defensive players said the same.

What Im trying to say is we played a little bit better than them as the game went and that was why we were able to win, cornerback Charles Tillman said Monday, then included Matt Fortes 205 rushing yards and Devin Hesters touchdown return among other whys behind the Bears victory.

The Bears need to find a more meaningful measure of defensive performance than the other teams defense.

Smith in fact tempered that significantly on Monday, saying simply, We didnt play as well as we need to.. We wont play defense like that here very often.

That would be a good idea.

The Panthers had 10 plays of 20 yards or longer, and unlike in past Panthers nightmares when wide receiver Steve Smith abused the Bears, six different players made them. That doesnt include runs of 16 yards by running back Jonathan Stewart and 14 by quarterback Cam Newton plus a 15-yard completion to tight end Jeremy Shockey.

Newton was neither sacked nor hit hard enough to count except when he ran with the ball. Carolina ran 72 plays; the Bears had exactly one tackle for loss.

We need to get more pressure on them, Smith said, expanding the sweep of his not-goods. We didnt play the run well yesterday. We gave up big plays in the passing game. You just cant have that.
To be fair

A couple of perspective items to consider here:

The Panthers may not necessarily be a good prism through which to evaluate the Bears defense. Indeed, the wonder of Sunday may not be that the Panthers got 543 yards, but that they got only 543.

The Carolina offense has a No. 1 at quarterback (Cam Newton); two No. 1s at running back (Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams); two No. 1s at tight end (Greg Olsen, Jeremy Shockey; two No. 1s at tackle (Jordan Gross, Jeff Otah); and a Pro Bowl guard in Ryan Kalil, a No. 2. And thats not even including Steve Smith, a No. 3 but among the NFLs top wideouts over most of the past decade.

The time of possession disparity (Carolina had the ball 33 minutes 29 seconds, 7 minutes longer than the Bears) shouldnt be particularly surprising. The touchdown returns by Devin Hester and D.J. Moore meant that the Panthers had two more possessions than the Bears.

And very significantly, in a stop that was a decisive tipping point in the game, the defense allowed Carolina just three incompletions after a fourth-quarter Jay Cutler interception gave the Panthers the ball at the Chicago 29. Carolina missed a field-goal try from 52 yards to net nothing from the takeaway.
Yes, but

For the Bears to say that their defense out-played the Carolina defense carries a hint of whistling past the graveyard for a unit that is disarray. The Carolina defense, missing a Pro Bowl linebacker (Jon Beason) and cornerback (Chris Gamble) should not be any standard of comparison.

For the Bears to say that their defense out-played Carolinas, whether because the Bears scored a touchdown or because Carolinas gave up 224 rushing yards and that they only allowed 169,

A bigger problem looms up front, where games are typically won. The defensive line has just three sacks over the last three games, albeit against two quarterbacks among the NFLs more sack-proof in Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton. Unofficial post-game stats had the Bears delivering zero quarterback hits on Newton after just two against Rodgers.

Without a pass rush, the difficulties in the deep secondary are magnified exponentially simply because receivers have time to get to the safeties level. And Bears cornerback play is far from the shut-down level.

Now the Bears get Matthew Stafford, who has not been sacked in three of the Detroit Lions four games. Stafford has been sacked five times but all came against the Minnesota Vikings, and the quarterback has been hit just 14 other times this season.

Updating

Guard Chris Spencers exact injury is a small fracture in his right hand, suffered in the first half of the Carolina game but not enough to sideline him Sunday or against Detroit. Anytime you have a player finish a game, Lovie Smith said, you feel pretty good about him going into the next one."
Scoring issues

The final Bears point total of 34 against the Carolina Panthers was ample but the offense is still not taking over games in any respect beyond Matt Fortes play.

The Carolina offense out-scored the Bears 29-20, with touchdown runs by Forte and Marion Barber augmented by two thwarted red-zone trips that resulted in Robbie Gould field goals of 20 and 24 yards.

But the Bears offense still has not scored more than two touchdowns in a game this season, scoring two each against Atlanta, Green Bay and Carolina. Only the Falcons offense was outscored by the Bears, and that game also featured a defensive touchdown, a fumble forced by Julius Peppers and returned by Brian Urlacher.
Not in a rush

The Carolina Panthers became the fourth straight team to rush for 100 or more yards on the Chicago defense. Running backs DeAngelo Williams (82 yards) and Jonathan Stewart (52) were supplemented by Cam Newtons 35 as the 169 rushing yards were the most since the New York Giants 189 in game four last Oct. 3.

More concerning perhaps, teams are averaging a stunning 5.1 yards per rush against a defense that ranked No. 6 in the NFL last season giving up 3.7 yards per carry.
Duly noted

Devin Hester is making history but hes also drawing unwanted attention and from more than just kick-coverage teams

For the second straight week Hester drew a 15-yard penalty for actions after a play was over. The first was a dead-ball foul for punching a Packer after a play in the loss to Green Bay. Sunday he drew an unsportsmanlike conduct flag for following his 69-yard punt return for a touchdown with a series of three somersaults in the Carolina end zone.

The 15-yard penalty was assessed on the kickoff, Carolina started from its 36, its best starting field position of the entire game, and the result was a touchdown in eight plays.

Right guard Chris Spencer left the game in the first half with what was diagnosed as a broken right hand, according to several reports. Spencer returned to the game and played the second half with what appeared to be a cast or heavy wrap on the injured hand.

Safety Brandon Meriweather, no stranger to fines from the NFL, is expected to receive a letter from the NFL this week for his helmet-to-helmet hit on wide receiver Steve Smith in the second quarter.

The good news is that the Bears have gotten points every time they reached or breached an opponents 20-yard line. Last year the Bears scored points of any kind on only 40 of 51 red-zone possessions, 26th in the NFL. The bad news is that the Bears are scoring touchdowns on just half their red-zone possessions (5 of 10).

I am not making this up.

Former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick handled color commentary for the FOX telecast of the Bears-Panthers game, describing plays by individuals such as center Robert Garza and noting that offensive coordinator Mike Martz wants to run the ball." No, really, he said that.

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

Bears have good news on Trey Burton, but tight end questions linger

Bears have good news on Trey Burton, but tight end questions linger

DECATUR, Ill. — The Bears do not expect Trey Burton to begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list, clearing up a question that’s lingered ever since the team revealed the tight end underwent sports hernia surgery earlier this year. 

But while Burton will participate to some extent in camp — general manager Ryan Pace said the team will be “smart” about his workload — the Bears will nonetheless have some important questions to answer about their group of tight ends in the coming weeks. 

Specifically: The Bears can help Mitch Trubisky be a more efficient and productive quarterback by being more effective when using 12 personnel (two tight ends, one running back). It’s an area of the offense Matt Nagy wasn’t able to maximize in 2018, with Adam Shaheen missing more than half the season due to a foot injury and a concussion, and Dion Sims proving to be ineffective when he was on the field. 

“It's all predicated based off of matchups, and so who are you going against and do you like your tight ends or do you like your other skill guys,” Nagy said. 

Ideally, Shaheen will be more available than he has been over his first two years in the league, during which he’s missed 13 games. The same goes for Burton: The Bears’ offense struggled to overcome his sudden absence in the playoffs, with the trickle-down effect being the Philadelphia Eagles successfully limiting what Tarik Cohen could do in that loss. 

The Bears like their receivers — it’s arguably the deepest unit on the team — and primarily used 11 personnel last year (three receivers, one tight end, one running back) with Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller the primary targets. With Cordarrelle Patterson and Riley Ridley now on the roster, it’s may be unrealistic to expect the Bears to use 12 personnel any more frequently than they did last year (17 percent, which was even with the NFL average). 

But when the Bears do use 12 personnel, there’s room for improvement in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. While in 12 personnel in 2018, the Bears averaged about a yard per carry and two yards per pass attempt less than league average; Trubisky and Chase Daniel combined for a passer rating of 85 in 12 personnel, about 17 points lower than the league average. 

The point here is that throwing out of 12 personnel is, per Warren Sharp’s 2019 Football Preview, is more efficient than throwing from 11 personnel. It makes sense: 12 personnel forces teams to play their base defense instead of having five defensive backs on the field in nickel. Getting the athleticism of Burton and Shaheen matched up against linebackers more frequently would seem to be a positive for the Bears. 

The Bears liked what they saw from Shaheen during training camp last year before he injured his foot in a preseason game, and Pace was pleased with how the 2017 second-round pick looked during spring practices. 

“Very encouraged last year, very encouraged in the preseason, and he knows this, he’s just got to stay healthy,” Pace said. “He’s had a great offseason. He’s just got to keep on stacking positive day after positive day. Same thing with Trey. And we’re excited about (Ben) Braunecker. There are a lot of younger pieces in play. We’re excited to see that play out. 

“Nagy utilizes the tight end position a lot. Part of it, especially for Shaheen, is just staying healthy.”

Shaheen still is a relative unknown, though. The Bears haven’t seen him handle a large workload much — he played more than 50 percent of the offensive snaps in a given game just three times in his career. He’s only logged 17 receptions and 175 yards since entering the league; Burton surpassed those totals against the AFC East in 2018 (four games, 18 receptions, 195 yards). 

Bradley Sowell (a converted offensive lineman) and the group of Dax Raymond, Ian Bunting, Jesper Horsted and Ellis Richardson (undrafted free agents) are even more unknown in terms of tight end depth, too. How the Bears are able to develop depth at both the “Y” (in-line) and “U” (move) tight end positions in Bourbonnais will be an important storyline to follow. 

Last week, we looked at how passing to running backs on first down can help Trubisky and the Bears’ offense be better in 2019. Consider better production from 12 personnel to be another path to the kind of critical offensive growth the Bears need. 

As Bears' critical kicking competition starts back up, Ryan Pace is keeping his options open

As Bears' critical kicking competition starts back up, Ryan Pace is keeping his options open

DECATUR, Ill. — The Bears will report to Bourbonnais for training camp on Thursday with everything on the table regarding their kicking competition — well, everything but making a trade for Robbie Gould. 

Elliott Fry or Eddy Pineiro could emerge from training camp and four preseason games as the clear-cut choice to be the Bears’ placekicker when the 2019 season opens Sept. 5 against the Green Bay Packers. Alternatively, both could not do enough to convince Ryan Pace, Matt Nagy and the Bears’ brass that they’re the solution to the most glaring weakness on an otherwise Super Bowl-caliber roster. 

So not only will Pineiro and Fry be competing against each other, they’ll be competing against a group of kickers around the league who could wind up on the trading block or the waiver wire in the coming weeks. 

"We’re watching all the teams, all the competitive situations around the league — one of them will be kicker," Pace said. "We’re just watching that progress as we go forward. We know right now where we stand, where some of those battles are occurring. We’re watching those. And I’m sure there will be ones that will pop up that might surprise us."
 
The first 11 questions of Pace and Matt Nagy’s pre-training-camp press conference on Sunday involved the kicking position in some way, an indication of a few things. 

First and foremost is what’s at stake for the Bears with this kicking battle. 2018’s season ended well short of the Super Bowl when Cody Parkey’s 43-yard kick double-doinked off the uprights at Soldier Field; if the 2019 Bears — with a stronger roster — suffer the same fate, it’ll go down as one of the biggest, most gutting disappointments in franchise history. 

Second is an indication of how deep the Bears’ roster is: What else, really, is there to talk about in terms of training camp battles besides kicker? There will be a heated competition at the bottom of the team’s wide receiver depth chart, and the Bears need better play (and better health) from their tight ends. But this is a strong, talented roster across all units — except for kicker. 

That’s not to say the Bears aren’t without their questions, from how good Mitch Trubisky will be to how the defense adjusts to Chuck Pagano’s scheme to how this team handles the high expectations created by 2018’s success. But those are topics that’ll play out during the regular season; the kicking battle has to be solved by Week 1’s kickoff. 

And final reason for the "hyper focus," as Pace put it, on the kicking competition is the overwhelming interest in the topic from fans. Bears chairman George McCaskey said on Sunday his team’s kicking situation has come up in every interaction he’s had with fans over the last six and a half months. 

“Thanks for the reminder,” McCaskey said he’s responded. “We’re working on that.”

How the competition between Fry and Pineiro plays out in Bourbonnais and then into preseason games will be fascinating to follow. Nagy hinted during the spring at throwing some curveballs at each kicker, and while he said Sunday he doesn’t plan on calling for field goal attempts on third down during preseason games, he did say he’s going to do what he can to make sure each kicker gets as many chances as possible to be evaluated. 

“We need to figure out this position, right? We need to understand it’s a crucial spot first we’ve got to get right,” Nagy said. “I think the more opportunities that you have for these guys to prove who the are and what they could do, we’ll take ‘em. 

“So there may be some questionable playcalls in the preseason. I’ll just leave it at that and we’ll go from there.”

For now, Pace characterized Fry and Pineiro as “even” heading into training camp. So may the best kicker win, whether he'll be in Bourbonnais on Thursday or not. 

“Those guys are going to battle it out,” Pace said. “Obviously we’re scouring the waiver wire as we go forward. And it’s kind of open competition.”